A Fantasy about U.S. Thirst for War

American Gods

I’ve been stunned at the way that neoconservatives, ignoring the lessons of the Iraq invasion, appear determined to instigate a war with Iran. Experts are saying that the current framework, negotiated with Iran by the U.S., Russia, China, Germany, and France, is far better than anyone could have anticipated. Nevertheless, the GOP and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu are doing all they can to sabotage it, even as they refuse to suggest any credible alternatives. If the sabotage were to work, our partners would in all likelihood abandon the sanctions and Iran would go back to developing the bomb. Everyone would be worse off.

Currently America’s far right, in matters both domestic and foreign, has all but abandoned compromise, negotiation, and, for that matter, subtlety. Whether dealing with our enemies, our allies, the president, Democrats, or the GOP’s moderate wing, their default mode is attack. Republican right-wingers seem more interested in Armageddon than responsible governing.

A fantasy novel has helped me better understand why an American political faction would behave this way. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (2001), which has become an instant fantasy classic, detects a strain of nihilistic violence within the American republic. Gaiman moved to the United States in 1992 and his book reads very much like an immigrant trying to figure out the new land he inhabits. He seems to be attribute America’s anger to the failure of its new religion, which is to say the worship of material goods and technological advancement, to provide genuine spiritual sustenance.

The American gods in the title have been brought over by the different immigrant groups, only to be abandoned shortly thereafter. “This is a bad land for gods,” we are told repeatedly. In Gaiman’s fantasy, the gods don’t entirely die out but live a marginal existence. It seems only a matter of time, however, before America’s current gods, which include Internet, Media, and Car, wipe them out. American Gods is a road novel and Shadow, the novel’s protagonist, wanders through the landscape looking for meaning. He also serves as Odin’s driver.

Odin doesn’t want to go down quietly and is urging all the other gods to join him in a grand showdown. In such a confrontation, the old gods won’t stand a chance, but it seems to them a better option than getting picked off one by one, as is the current situation. The final battlefield occurs in Rock City, Tennessee, one of those places that feel vaguely sacred to Americans. As Odin explains it to Shadow,

Roadside attractions: people feel themselves being pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.

Thematically Gaiman is making the point that America’s materialistic culture is wiping out any deeper spirituality, even though the longings are there. In fact, this seems like such an inevitable process that one of the new gods—a fat boy representing the Internet—asks why there has to be a confrontation at all. Won’t the old gods just naturally fade away?

As it turns out, however, Odin is playing a double game in conjunction with Loki. He doesn’t need the old gods to win. He just wants a lot of carnage, which he will feed off of and return in all his glory. A cult of violence is one old religion that many Americans could imagine joining. Here’s Odin, temporarily dead, explaining:

[T]he battle will bring [Loki] back. As the battle will bring me back for good. I’m a ghost and he’s a corpse, but we’ve still won. The game was rigged.

Shadow intervenes to stop the battle, explaining to the gods about Odin and Loki’s plot. As you read his words, think of those people and those forces in American politics that urge perpetual confrontation. Although many of them claim to be Christian and a few of them Jewish (William Kristol and Paul Wolfowitz come to mind), what really energizes them is the god of war:

There was a god who came here from a far land, and whose power and influence waned as belief in him faded. He was a god who took his power from sacrifice, and from death, and especially from war. The deaths of those who fell in war were dedicated to him—whole battlefields that had given him in the Old Country power and sustenance.

Now he was old. He made his living as a grifter, working with another god from his pantheon, a god of chaos and deceit. Together they rooked the gullible. Together they took people for all they’d got.

Somewhere in there—maybe fifty years ago, maybe a hundred, they put a plan into motion, a plan to create a reserve of power they could both tap into. Something that would make them stronger than they had ever been. After all, what could be more powerful than a battlefield covered with dead gods? The game they played was called “Let’s You and Him Fight.”

Do you see?

The battle you came here for isn’t something that any of you can win or lose. The winning and the losing are unimportant to him, to them. What matters is that enough of you die. Each of you that falls in battle gives him power. Every one of you that dies, feeds him.

As Shadow comes to understand in the course of the novel, there is no inevitable clash between modernity and the old gods because all Americans can turn to their various belief systems to find spiritual sustenance, even in the face of rapid social change. As Gaiman explains, religions are sustaining metaphors that help people negotiate their challenges:

Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all. God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you—even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers, and triumphs over all opposition.

Religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the world.

If people become hysterical, however, all religions become a single religion of bloodthirsty lashing out. The colorful distinctions between Jesus, Moses, Mohammed (both Sunni and Shia versions), the Buddha, Anansi, Osiris, Zeus, Coyote, etc. etc. will be wiped out and people will honor–in essence if not in name–only Odin.

Gaiman gives us a taste of the Odin religion when he describes how the god first arrived in the new world, in 813 A.D. He is honored by the sacrifice of a “scraeling,” the Norse word for indigenous Greenlanders:

Then they picked him up, a man at each shoulder, a man at each leg, carried him at shoulder height, the four men making him an eight-legged horse, and they carried him at the head of a procession to an ash tree on the hill overlooking the bay, where they put a rope around his neck and hung him high in the wind, their tribute to the All-Father, the gallows lord. The scraeling’s body swung in the wind, his face blackening, his tongue, protruding, his eyes popping, his penis hard eough to hang a leather helmet on, while the men cheered and shouted and laughed, proud to be sending their sacrifice to the heavens.

And, the next day, when two huge ravens landed upon the scraeling’s corpse, one on each shoulder, and commenced to peck at its cheeks and eyes, the men knew their sacrifice had been accepted.

While these Vikings are eventually slaughtered by the Greenlanders, Leif Erickson finds his gods already there and waiting for him when he arrives 100 years later. Odin still awaits us all if we allow ourselves to be drawn into more bloodletting.

Lest you become too discouraged, I’ll write tomorrow about Gaiman’s proposed solution. As I argued in my analysis of Stephen King’s IT, great fantasy writers delve so deeply into our condition that they often arrive at very interesting counter measures.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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